British human radiation experiments

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#463-464
13/12/1996
Article

(December 13, 1996) The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has published dozens of pages of official letters, reports and minutes of meetings which show that the British government has been sponsoring radiation experiments on human beings for nearly 40 years, and that at least one such experiment is still going today.

(463.4600) WISE Amsterdam - CND is calling for a royal commission to investigate all human experiments carried out at Aldermaston, Harwell and Porton Down, the chemical and biological warfare research establishment, which has also carried out human radiation experiments.

The documents revealed by the CND include U.S. government memorandums on the experiments with which it had been asked to help out during the 1980s. Other documents show that while the experiments started officially in 1964, they may have started unofficially as early as 1957.

The CND's report, entitled "The Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Secret Human Radiation Experiments in Britain" says the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell and the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, were the main laboratories involved in experiments which involved a number of different radioactive substances being inhaled, injected, swallowed or eaten, some of them by women and one by a man aged 82 years.

The substances involved included Niobium-92m, Barium-133, Palladium-103, Chromium-51, Strontium-85, Strontium-86, Iodine-132, Americium-241, Calcium-45, and Tritium. Sir William Penney -- known as the "Father of Britain's H-Bomb" -- was directly involved in authorizing the start of the program.

In 1994, Aldermaston's chief executive flatly denied that it had ever been involved in human radiation experiments, a statement now contradicted by the documents released by the U.S. government.

The U.S. government documents also reflect American concerns about proposed British experiments on both legal and health grounds. One memorandum warned the U.S. nuclear warfare laboratory at Lawrence Livermore not to involve American subjects in the British experiments, and said there was no justification for the use of humans in these tests. Another U.S. briefing warned bluntly: "What is the worst thing that can happen to a human being as a result of being a subject? Death."

Systematic efforts were made to keep news of the experiments from the public, and also from the trade unions at Britain's nuclear laboratories. The government's Code of Practice on human radiation experiments showed that people taking part in the experiments were told little about the experiment and its potential risks. Efforts were also made to prevent senior scientists - who might "query" the need for human subjects in the experiment - from intervening.

More seriously still, government officials worked out an elaborate system for denying liability and damages to any volunteer harmed in these experiments, and they believed that 1954 legislation setting up Britain's nuclear program was all the legal justification they needed to start the tests.

Newly elected CND Chair Dave Knight said: "The government has sought to mislead, and even lie outright, to members of Parliament and members of the public over its human experimentation program. Lives have been put at risk. Guidelines for the use of radiation in medical research and treatment have been openly disregarded. The authorities were determined to deny liability if anything went wrong."

The CND's report "The Nuclear Guinea Pigs" can be viewed on the CND's HomePage
Source and Contact: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 162 Holloway Road, London N7 8DQ
Tel: +44-171 700 2393
Fax: +44-171 700 2357